It sounds like something out of a movie. Hot on the trail of pirate fishermen illegally casting nets off the coast of West Africa in April, activists aboard Greenpeace vessel The Esperanza overtook the ship and occupied its mast and cranes for six days before Spanish officials intervened and declared its cargo illegal.
One of the mast clingers was Celeste Stewart, manager of Greenpeace’s mid-donor program, serving a three-month stint as assistant cook on The Esperanza. How many organizations do you know of whose development staff spend their downtime chasing pirate ships?
Not many. But this is what Greenpeace is all about — talking the talk and walking the walk.
It all started when a group of American and Canadian journalists and activists, inspired by the Quaker ideology of bearing witness to social problems, banded together and sailed a small vessel to protest the U.S. government’s testing of nuclear weapons beneath the island of Amchitka off the coast of Alaska in 1971. Their coalition — then called the Don’t Make a Wave Committee — sparked the beginnings of Greenpeace, an organization that 35 years later has 40 offices internationally and takes on some of the world’s most powerful political and corporate entities in the name of protecting the planet.
Protesting everything from nuclear testing to ocean dumping of toxic and radioactive waste, to whaling and the destruction of ancient forests has brought the organization up against governments and corporations worldwide — one reason why Greenpeace doesn’t solicit corporate or political funding. As explained in the organization’s 2004/2005 Annual Report, “Financial independence is core to our work and one of our greatest strengths. It gives us the ability to take on environmental destruction wherever and whenever it occurs.”
It’s no wonder then that Matthew Sherrington, director of development for Greenpeace USA, is known as a maverick. Reliance on individual gifts from its more than 2.7 million members worldwide has forced Sherrington’s team to the forefront of fundraising innovation. Concepts such as monthly giving and direct dialogue, alien to most U.S. nonprofits, are the organization’s lifeblood. And while its trek to the cutting edge of development hasn’t been without setbacks and challenges, Greenpeace has found success incorporating its action-oriented mission into its fundraising and DRM.
A fundraising rebuild
Greenpeace’s cause was big in the environmentally aware ’80s and ’90s.
“1992 was the first Earth summit in Rio, so I think the issue had resonance, and environmental awareness was very high, and Greenpeace sort of rode that,” Sherrington says.
But as environmentalism became mainstream under the Clinton/Gore administration and the concept of recycling took off, there was a perception on the part of the public that progress had been made and the country was nearing a “solution” to its environmental woes.
That shift, compounded by internal factors, such as weak fundraising management, led to dwindling income and donor numbers for Greenpeace, and signaled the need for a fundraising face-lift.
The organization relied heavily on a canvass operation, with staff across the country going door to door recruiting supporters, and a high-volume direct-mail program.
Though membership to Greenpeace USA was up to 1 million, the canvass operation was barely covering the costs to run the program. As part of
budget cuts, it was closed down in the late ’90s, eliminating Greenpeace’s valuable grassroots presence.
To make matters worse, in 2002, the organization faced problems with the conversion from an old database to a more sophisticated one. It wasn’t fully prepared for the conversion, and business processes weren’t properly understood or implemented, which affected the profitability of acquisition efforts and the ROI of others. Acquisition into monthly giving and DRTV were among the programs that suffered and were cut back, Sherrington says, adding that turnover in the fundraising team was high.
Almost a year after the database conversion, in late 2003, Sherrington was recruited from Greenpeace U.K. to perform much-needed surgery on Greenpeace USA’s direct-marketing and retention programs. He worked with vendors to fix the database and change the way the staff viewed it.
“Previously, the database was this box, and if it didn’t work, people thought there was a problem with the box. Fundamentally, it was about everybody in the department understanding that they were responsible for the business processes associated with the database and how well they worked it,” Sherrington says.
Technical issues righted, he then spent 2004 rebuilding his fundraising team and operations.
Shifting the focus
Monthly giving had always been a core strategy for Greenpeace USA, though relatively minor in terms of the overall fundraising program.
Sherrington was brought in primarily because of his experience with monthly giving in the United Kingdom, where it’s much more the norm in terms of charitable giving.
To say the monthly giving program was reinvigorated is an understatement. It now represents the most significant part of the organization’s gifts, with 25 percent of donors giving an automatic payment on a monthly basis, which accounts for 60 percent of Greenpeace USA’s contributed income.
There are two streams from which it gets people to join its monthly givers, or Frontliners, club. One is conversion from existing members of the organization, urged through member communications such as the organization’s magazine, which includes an ask for the monthly giving program.
The other is in acquisition. Sherrington says Greenpeace has tested the ask in mail acquisition as well as in renewals, but so far its greatest success has been through direct dialogue, where monthly giving is the only ask.
Becoming a monthly supporter is the first option on Greenpeace’s online donation page. And one-time Web and direct-mail donors are contacted 45 to 60 days after their gift by phone and asked to give monthly.
Putting such emphasis on recruiting monthly donors has caused a structural shift in the organization’s donor base that’s resulted in it now having less than 20 percent the number of donors it had in the ’90s. Sherrington says that a decline in donor numbers might signal a failing program for a traditional fundraising program; but Greenpeace USA’s smaller numbers are offset by the greater return on investment it gets from its monthly donors.
The organization’s renewed focus on monthly giving pushed it to find new ways to garner supporters. And find them it did, most successfully through its direct-dialogue operation.
The concept, which involves using professionally trained canvassers to do face-to-face fundraising door to door and to passers-by on city streets, was pioneered in 1995 in Austria by a company working for none other than Greenpeace. It was shared among the organization’s international offices, and Greenpeace now operates direct dialogue in about 30 countries, from Thailand and India, to Europe and North America, using a mixture of external agencies and in-house teams. It made its way to the United States in 2000.
Sherrington says the organization first tried the successful Greenpeace U.K. approach of having its telemarketing agency do direct dialogue on the street. Telemarketing professionals, after all, are accustomed to quick and motivational conversations, deal with a high rate of rejection, have a high degree of perseverance, and are able to manage a large number of staff. But as Greenpeace USA found out, applying those skills on the street is a challenge, and it failed for the organization.
Greenpeace USA then prompted the door-to-door canvass agency that it had been working with for four years to add sidewalk direct dialogue to its services. Last year, the organization decided to build its own in-house team, which currently operates on the streets of New York City, Los Angeles and San Francisco.
Direct dialogue tends to recruit supporters under the age of 35, most of them new to charity giving and unresponsive to direct mail. Those signing up for monthly giving via direct-dialogue street-team workers simply fill out a form giving their contact and bank information. Signing the form authorizes Greenpeace to debit their card or bank account.
Greenpeace’s success with direct dialogue can, in part, be attributed to the way the program fits so well with the organization’s approach to its mission.
“Our approach to our street-supporter recruitment is directly on-brand,” Sherrington says. “It is, in itself, a reflection of being an activist organization.
“But we take it further,” he adds. “Our recruiter staff … are Greenpeace; they represent Greenpeace. It’s the real thing, when you meet Greenpeace on the street.”
Explaining monthly giving’s benefits to members and potential donors is a relatively easy sell for Greenpeace. For one thing, it’s environmentally friendly in that it cuts down on the amount of mail the organization is sending. Second, electronic funds transfer eliminates the hassle of mailing a check. And allowing people the option to stop whenever they like eases the ask.
Most important, Sherrington says, is getting people to see the need for long-term support.
“If you’re honest about communicating that long-term goals take long-term support, people know that one $20 donation isn’t going to do it,” he explains.
However, while monthly giving is easier for the donor, it has by no means been a hands-free operation for Greenpeace. There are technical considerations, primarily the fact that roughly 1,000 monthly giver debits fail every month, mostly due to errant bank processing, expired credit cards, etc. Because of this, Greenpeace USA has had to stay on top of the debiting process to contact donors and “mop up” these issues when they arise.
Nevertheless, by taking the focus off the everlasting ask, monthly giving has enabled the organization to focus on the donor relationship.
“Once you’ve got them, all the attention is on retention … You don’t have to take the time to ask over and over again, and instead you can spend that time and energy to develop a relationship that goes beyond giving,” Sherrington says.
The program, by its nature, displays both the organization’s and donor’s long-term support of the mission and allows space for a “proper conversation,” Sherrington says. Monthly givers are kept in the loop through a quarterly newsletter that updates them on Greenpeace operations. The newsletter has no financial ask and is focused instead on encouraging participation through action-oriented campaigns, which Sherrington says get double the response rates of special appeals.
The desire to live the Greenpeace mission by engaging in action-oriented campaigns is something that the organization recognizes in its donors and would like to foster. A characteristic common to most of the 170,000 active donors (averaging 55 years old) is the desire to be part of an organization that stands up for what’s right, Sherrington says.
Two-thirds of Greenpeace USA’s e-mail list are non-donors who engage in action campaigns. Sherrington sees opportunity in getting action constituents to give as well as in getting active donors to become more involved with action campaigns.
“Our vision is to build an infrastructure that puts us back across the country, building our base, closely aligning financial support with activism,” he says. “We want donors to participate in actions, and we want activists to donate.”
The bottom line is getting people to broaden their interaction with Greenpeace.
“The mantra here is inspiring supporters to act, whether that’s giving money or taking action,” he adds. “What I expect is that we deliver a ‘Wow!’ experience. Who gets inspired by mediocrity? The theory is that more involved people are closer to the mission and their contributions will grow.”
An example of the “Wow!” experience in action was an integrated fundraising and activism campaign protesting the Japanese corporation that owns frozen-seafood company Gorton’s, along with part of a whaling fleet that has been targeted by various groups for the killing of endangered whale species.
(For a detailed look at the steps of the campaign, see the sidebar.)
The anti-whaling campaign included direct mail, telemarketing and e-mail and, in addition to a monetary ask, engaged donors and members in an action campaign where they created origami whales and sent them back to Greenpeace, which then gave them, en masse, to Gorton’s. More than just a petition, it was visual and tangible and it really allowed constituents to directly participate in the organization’s mission.
A challenging message
On of the more challenging bumps in Greenpeace’s fundraising road is the fact that it has an intangible mission of sorts.
“We’re primarily an advocacy group, a campaigning group that doesn’t deliver sort of tangible things day to day like conserving land or anything like that, but we’re about positive change and standing up to abuse of the planet when governments and corporations are doing things that they shouldn’t,” Sherrington says.
Positive change, indeed. Over the years, Greenpeace has championed protection of Antarctica, ocean dumping of toxins, atmospheric nuclear testing, drift nets, commercial whaling and, most recently, protection of the Great Bear Rainforest in Canada.
Greenpeace also faces challenges in the current social and political climate in the United States, where there’s an increased focus on national security. Sherrington says this has limited the space, both physically and in people’s minds, for elements of protest and the organization has found itself at the sharp end of those limitations.
“We’ve been taken to court by Homeland Security, we’ve had an IRS audit that was politically motivated … ,” he says, adding that the U.S. Department of Homeland Security case was deemed without merit and thrown out of court by the judge, and Greenpeace passed the IRS audit with flying colors.
Regardless of these challenges, compromising its mission has never been an option for the organization, a quality that makes it even more of a diamond in the rough for its supporters.
“People love or hate Greenpeace,” Sherrington says. “[There’s] no point inviting people in with a soft message, only for them to leave if they don’t like the full picture when they realize it.”
While monthly giving represents the bulk of the organization’s contributed funds, it also runs a traditional direct-mail program and has a large file of regular donors and one-time givers. Direct-mail packages include petition actions and asks, and they present current conflicts unabashedly on the outer envelopes, with headlines such as “Japanese Whalers Are At It Again! Take Action NOW to Stop the Slaughter.”
“For me, there’s no question that the GP brand allows us to take risks in fundraising, stand up for principles, do the right thing by donors. I think we’re aspiring to really deliver ‘relationship fundraising,’ not just give it lip service while maintaining effectively a technique-heavy mail operation,” Sherrington says.
Part of “relationship fundraising” involves showing donors that it takes its mission seriously, and the best place to start is at home. Everything in Greenpeace USA’s Washington, D.C. headquarters — from the carpet and countertops made from recycled products, to the energy that powers it — is environmentally friendly. All the elements in its direct-mail appeal mailings display the recycle logo and copy reading, “Printed on recycled paper with no chlorine bleaching used in the recycling process.”
And the organization puts its foot down when it comes to using premiums in its direct mail, too.
“The environmental sector … is known for its premiums: stuffed toys, tote bags, umbrellas. How on earth is dumping that sort of stuff [in mail] consistent with a message about conservation of resources? So we don’t do it,” Sherrington says.
It’s all part of Greenpeace’s goal to connect with people over the values, principles and passion that it represents, and to convey hope through its victories.
“There’s a lot of feeling of ‘What hope is there?’ in terms of corporations and government changing,” Sherrington says, adding that Greenpeace’s No. 1 task is showing people that change is possible and they have
the power to make a difference.